The End of the Missile Boats Era?

The Israeli Navy is preparing for scenarios in which, using the “Yakhont” missiles, there will be an attempt to hit Israel’s oil rigs. Therefore it tries to convince the members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that it should be equipped with small and more sophisticated boats rather than the veteran missile boats
(Photo: IDF Navy) (Photo: IDF Navy)

The Minister of Defense, Moshe Ya'alon, used his visit to the Munich Security Conference last weekend for advanced negotiations with seniors of the German security establishment, including the new Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, for the acquisition of medium-sized destroyers (frigates), which will be used, inter alia, for the protection of Israel’s natural-gas drilling in the Mediterranean Sea.

The intention to purchase destroyers is included in IDF’s plan for 2014, which was presented to the members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and may herald the end of the missile boats era. The new ships that the Navy intends to intensify with will be smaller than the most advanced ships currently in the hands of the Israeli Navy – “Sa'ar 5” missile boats, manufactured in the US 20 years ago, weighing 1,300 tons each.

The Navy's decision to settle for smaller ships has to do with the fact that it has recently finished formulating a new operational doctrine that seeks “command of the sea” in the era naval warfare that has changed drastically in recent years. IDF relates primarily to the admission of the advanced Russian-made land-sea combat systems “Yakhont", which are already in the hands of the Syrian army and possibly of Hezbollah as well.

This missile, with a capability of precise hits on targets at a distance of about 300 km, travels towards the target at a speed higher than the speed of sound and almost at sea level as it “tangents” to the surface. As the targeted ship is bigger – the easier it is to trace and hit from land. That is besides the additional threats, such as an air strike or torpedoes launched from submarines.

Parallel to the expansion of the threats on the ships, the Israeli navy received additional tasks relating the protection of the huge energy reserves in the Mediterranean Sea, in a distance of tens of kilometers from the coast of Israel, as well as combat missions in the depth of warfare spaces. According to foreign reports, the Navy operated in recent years to prevent the smuggling of weapons from Sudan, and is an important part of IDF’s war effort in the “depth theater”- including in countries within the “third circuit” such as Iran.

The variety of tasks requires maximum flexibility in operating the vessels in small groups and in remote areas. Therefore, the power structure of the Navy changes: the number of missile boats is expected to decrease, as it is estimated the new destroyers which will be built in Germany will be ready for use only in a few years. At the same time, the Navy will receive in the coming years three new “Dolphin” German--made submarines, which will increase the Israeli submarine fleet to six underwater vessels.

The new deal for the procurement of destroyers in Germany emerged after the Israeli navy studied a number of ships around the world, from which it next ship will selected. Among the options examined was also a ship made by "Hyundai Heavy Industries” Southern Korea. With the beginning of the search for a ship at the size of the "Sa'ar 4", the Navy abandoned its plans from several years ago to stock up on ships with a displacement of at least 2,000 tons. It should be noted that the Navy initially intended to acquire ships made ​​by "Lockheed Martin" in the context o the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) project - but the negotiations stopped due to the reduction of the project in the US, which led to a significant increase in the price of each ship. Subsequently, the Navy examined the possibility of building a ship in the Israel Shipyards, of similar size as the “Sa’ar 50”, which will be based on the German ship MAKO 100 programs, but this idea was dropped as well.

One of the additional challenges the navy is facing is to know to operate even in the event of a war in which Israel is attacked with thousands of missiles launched from Lebanon or the Gaza Strip, including at the main ports of the Navy - in Haifa and Ashdod. To this end, the Navy is preparing for the possibility of continuous activity in the sea without having to use its ports. Each ship will have to maintain its supplies for a long time without the home port.

But will the plan to purchase three destroyers be carried into effect? IDF is counting that the new ships will be funded by a special budget for the protection of energy reserves, rather than the current defense budget. This budget should as well include the procurement of detectors for detecting threats on the gas rigs - above and below water - and interception means such as unmanned boats and missile systems on the rigs. However, the protection plan called in the Navy “Economic Water” (Exclusive Economic Zone) has yet not been approved.